Making Agricultural Economics Work, One Autonomous Tractor at a Time


It has been another wet week here, which is challenging at best for Ontario’s wheat harvest. Today dawned cloudy and stormy looking as usual, not a wheat day for sure. However, for whatever reason, there was a coolish breeze on a day when you’d least expect it. I started combining towards noon in exasperation. The wind kept blowing and then the sun came out. It turned into my best harvest day yet this season. However, putting ruts into wheat ground is not by choice. It a bit of hot and dry in July a little too much to ask for?

On a harvest day like this I must make a lot of decisions not necessarily part of my normal management lexicon. Harvesting wheat at high moistures to save quality is not my choice. I would make a poor algorithm at the CME, which are pre-programed. As a farmer we spend so much time dealing with change, and much of that occurs at the micro level, where changing management, much of the time based on unknown weather anomalies often involves thousands of dollars.

I often say, it’s all about the agricultural economics. I really believe that. When we face problems of a technical nature at the end of the day, it boils down to the dollars lost or gained. Everybody would love to have that monster combine with the 50-foot head, but it’s just not happening for most of us, because we don’t have enough resources to make it all happen. Maximizing profit is always the goal. Making the most efficient use of your resources is a continuing challenge.

A few weeks ago, I mused about our farming future being beyond what we could imagine. Simply put, the choices I have in this 40th farming season for me are so much more than they were back then. In fact, 40 years ago, that young kid could have never imagined the farming world we are in today. Add a few more years to us and I’m sure that autonomous farm equipment sector we see bits and pieces of might really change our farming paradigm.

Increasingly, I see more autonomous farm equipment research and it makes more sense to me. If you’ve read this column over the last 36 years, you’ll know that I’ve always felt the world of autonomous farm equipment would be tripped up by “liability”. Phil was a good guy, but he got run over by that autonomous tractor. Who do you sue? However, with the research that I’ve seen and some practical applications in fields in southwestern Ontario, that problem must be manageable. In my own farming neighbourhood, we now have fertilizer application done autonomously, as well as soil sampling and a host of other applications. It would seem if we stretched our minds real hard, more of this should be on the horizon.

Think of an autonomous grid connected agricultural swarm called GridCon by John Deere. You might remember me a few weeks ago talking about swarm of small equipment doing your work for you. In this case, it’s an electric tractor connected to other small units that go across the field doing different tasks. You can check out the GridCon connected tractor project by clicking or copying on this link https://youtu.be/fzl3wkkKtoA

That’s an interesting project, but in my small mind, I cannot imagine an electric cable being tossed about in a farm field without an army of staff available to unravel it. Needless to say, we shouldn’t judge these things on our own limited experiences. More and more we are seeing things like this that will eventually come to fruition.

The key will be for these innovations will be to make agricultural economic sense. It’s hard for me to imagine now, but it’s always been that way when it comes to innovation. On one of my farms, I drive around a set of hydro (electricity) poles, which were set up off the ditch about 60 or 70 years ago to bring electricity to the concession. I’m sure the farmer who owned the farm then was just glad to get the electricity. In 2021, those poles are an annoyance to me. However, I often thing of my late grandfather, who when he was a child, there was no such thing as hydro poles. Society simply existed without it. I’m sure at a young age, he couldn’t have imagined such a thing. However, today, we couldn’t imagine a world without it.

As we move ahead, the challenge will be move past our own limitations in our imagination to figure out what’s next. It sure looks like autonomous farm equipment will be part of that equation. How it will evolve and how it will take shape will surely be the challenge. At the end of the day, it will have to make agricultural economic sense. That’s really, what makes our agricultural world go around.